“If you can’t entertain, challenge, and engage a listener, you have no spot on my radio station.” Those sound like the words of a raging taskmaster, but they are actually the words of WFNZ program director Tony DiGiacomo (Dee-jock-omo). Tony is enthusiasm defined. He has a true passion for sports radio and makes a fun job even more enjoyable for the people around him.
I think Tony shares some similarities with Jim Harbaugh. They both attack the day with “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” Although they truly love what they do and the people they work with, they will not hesitate to turn off the buddy-buddy approach while pushing talent to new heights. They both have some unique quirks too. I can see Tony rocking khakis or something else off the wall like Harbaugh.
It’s an art to help talent improve while actually enhancing their passion for the industry. Tony does an outstanding job of accomplishing both. You can feel his enthusiasm for sports radio, his hosts in Charlotte, and his favorite baseball team below. It’s unfortunate that Tony uses all of his vigor to describe his love for the Cubs, but we all can’t be perfect. Enjoy, everybody.
Noe: I’ve noticed a very disturbing trend in sports radio. There’s Bruce Gilbert, Dan Zampillo in LA, you. You guys are all Cub fans. Are there any St. Louis Cardinal fans calling the shots in sports radio these days?
Tony: (laughs) Not that I know of. There is, however, a guy here on WBT our sister station named John Hancock — a 30-year radio vet who was just inducted into the WBT Hall of Fame — who’s a die-hard Cardinal fan. I do know that. He’s in our building, but no I can’t think of one actually. I know Matt Nahigian in San Francisco at The Game is also a die-hard Cub fan. I’m sure he’ll appreciate having that out there. A lot of Cub fans are running the show at sports radio stations across the country.
Cardinal fans, man. You know what? They’re a rare breed. People think Cub fans are nuts. Cardinal fans are even crazier. Cardinal fans believe baseball starts and stops in St. Louis. They don’t open their eyes to the rest of the Major League Baseball world. Where Cub fans can appreciate the success of the Yankees and the Red Sox and even the Cardinals over the years, because at our core we are baseball fans, because we suffered through losing for so damn long, man. So yeah, that is a trend. That’s not a disturbing one though, Brian.
Noe: It is very disturbing. It needs to change immediately. If I see any up-and-coming programmers that are Cardinal fans, I will definitely try to get them on the radar. So tell me Tone, how did you get your start in sports radio?
Tony: I grew up a kid wanting to be Harry Caray. I think like every Chicago kid who was interested in getting into broadcasting, they wanted to be like Harry Caray who was my idol growing up. I just loved the way he described baseball. It wasn’t so much the funky stuff he did with the glasses and “this Bud’s for you” and all that stuff, but I just loved how he described the game. He took you inside a broadcast booth with theater of the mind. He told great stories. I thought Harry was actually really good on radio too. He was doing radio games on WGN.
So I wanted to be Harry Caray, but then I realized that, hey, I had to pay for school. I went to community college for a couple of years, and in that two-year phase, I grew even more fond of the business. I then chose Columbia College in downtown Chicago. A lot of guys and gals have graduated from there. From Pat Sajak to Pat O’Brien to others that are in the Chicago media industry still. I heard it was a great school and spent two and a half years there. Their job placement scenario was perfect.
I got my first internship at WBBM — actually WMAQ at the time, which is now WBBM. I was a Bears network producer as an intern. I did that for a year, which was a great experience. Then, Brian Davis, the bald guy who calls the Oklahoma City Thunder games, actually turned me on to Sporting News Radio and said, “I know this guy named Mark Gentzkow who’s looking for some guys.” He was the PD at the time there. “Looking for some guys on a part-time basis and I think you and your twin brother will be great for this.”
So, that’s how I got my start at Sporting News Radio part-time. Running weekends, editing sound, cutting tape, all that stuff. My first job on a full-time basis was in 2000 running the Bob Kemp Show overnight and Rick Ballou who was on from 9 to 1. Rick is now in Jacksonville, and I think Bob is still in Arizona.
I worked overnights for four years and I actually dug it, man. I thought it was really, really fun. You got to learn so much in that time slot because the pressure was off on guest booking and all of that. It was where I could hone my skills as a producer and a programmer. I learned a ton from those two shows from 8 o’clock at night until 5 in the morning.
From there, I just rose thru the ranks at Sporting News. Then when Sporting News was bought by ACBJ Journals — which ironically is based here in Charlotte — when the Shaw’s took over they were moving the company to LA. I said, “I really don’t want to go to LA.” Then a couple of phone calls later, I found myself in Charlotte hired by DJ Stout who is one of my mentors, and still programming country radio here in Charlotte. That’s how I got down here.
It’s been a long and not so much windy road, but a solid road. To work in two markets like Chicago and Charlotte has been fantastic. A big city top-five market to a 23rd-ranked market, and to just be able to enjoy the ins and outs of a network, and go from network to local has been fascinating to learn. It’s made me a better programmer.
Noe: Did you have a vision or a goal to be in programming?
Tony: No, I wanted to be on the air. I always thought I was going to be on the air, and I fell in love with producing and programming. I fell in love with the rush of booking a guest. I fell in love with the rush of creating a great imaging piece. I fell in love with a great bit. I loved the interaction between host and producer and then becoming a sidekick on shows at the network.
Then moving down here and becoming a third-chair sidekick on the show “PrimeTime with the Packman.” I fell in love with that role. I got the best of both worlds. I was able to chime in on the air and add to great content while also delivering and producing the great content, which I thought was invaluable to listeners to have the experience of doing both.
I don’t think anybody tries to be a producer. I think everybody grew up through the ranks or in high school or in college, they want to be on the air. They want to aspire to be on the air. If you’re not aspiring to be that, I think they’re in it for the wrong reasons because everybody should want to be on the air. That’s the ultimate. But I do think the production side and producing side gives you a different rush which is also exhilarating. When a show comes together formatically and you can walk in studio at the end of a four-hour show and fist bump your host and be like, “You know, that was a great show.” That’s the best part about sports radio.There’s no monotony in this job and I love that.
Noe: Do you think there are hosts that might be better suited to be producers or programmers but are just unwilling to go down that road?
Tony: I do and it’s not that they’re not talented because I think everybody on the air has talent, but I think it’s the way you see yourself and the stage you’re at in your career. I think a lot of hosts think that that’s all they’ll do for the rest of their life. When in reality if they flipped a coin and realized how good they were at production and formatting and programming, they would actually fall in love with this side of the job.
This side of the industry is awesome. I come in as a programmer every day thinking what could I do today to make the station better? Whether it’s to coach a guy up, image a little better, suggest a guest to help a show or something else. It keeps things fun and interesting. I’ve been around some guys over the years and I’ll look at them and think, “Man, you’re really good on the air, but you’ve topped out. I think you’d be an excellent assistant PD, or an excellent PD, or heck even a great executive producer of a show.” But most don’t think about that. I also think there are some PD’s and producers who are really good on the air and just don’t allow themselves to expand their role and pursue those opportunities, so I think it works both ways.
Noe: What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a program director?
Tony: Man, I’ve made some tough calls here in a year and a half. Looking back on it, we had to make a decision here to elevate a show which we formed about a year and a month ago. We had this dynamic show in “Garcia & Bailey.” Frank Garcia, a former NFL player, and Kyle Bailey who is an up-and-coming rising star from Charleston. We formed the show and I knew right away the chemistry was great. That’s something you can’t coach. Great chemistry is either there or it isn’t. You can coach the formatics and get guys better at the logistics of how to win the PPM game, but you can’t coach chemistry.
I also knew that our afternoon drive show, “Primetime with Chris Kroeger”, had been in afternoons for a long time and it too is a dynamic show. I met with my ops manager and we got together and said, “You know what, there’s this dynamic show that we believe is best suited for afternoon drive and we’ve got to make that adjustment.” It had nothing to do with Chris not being great because he definitely is, it was just about the way I saw the station flowing. Chris is a dynamite fit in middays and he’s already thriving since we made the move. That was a very tough decision. Certainly my toughest one.
There are times of course where you’re going to have to unfortunately cut a guy. Whether it’s for financial reasons or someone not delivering ratings. I think the tougher situations are when you have a really successful show in one daypart, and want to move them to another daypart, but still have another strong performer in that slot. My belief is that every daypart is important but you also have to consider where everyone fits and that’s not always easy to explain.
Noe: How do you go about that process? I don’t know what Chris’ mentality is, but someone might view that and say, “Hey, man. I used to be the starting quarterback and now you’re bringing me in as the Kordell Stewart slash player.” How do you talk a guy up and make him believe that he’s still very valued?
Tony: You’ve got to be honest with people and explain why you’re doing it. You have to let them know how they’re performing individually and as a team, from the producer, to the host, to the board op, to the engineer, and communicate that it’s not always about rating points. Sometimes it’s just about the dynamic of the shows that you have in front of you and where you feel they fit best.
As long as you’re honest with them, and you share your reasons, and remind them that you’re still a huge fan of what they’re doing and they’re not going anywhere other than to a different timeslot, I think you’ll continue to win together. It’s up to them to take you at your word and remain confident in themselves and sometimes that’s the hardest challenge, keeping a guy’s head right.
You know as well as I do, Brian, that in this job you go through ebbs and flows. One month you’re confident. One month nothing’s working for you and you lose yourself. Then you find yourself right back in the fast lane two months later. I believe that if you’re honest as a PD, you garner the respect of everybody on your team and find yourself having a lot of success together.
Noe: What’s a trait that’s a deal-breaker for you when you’re evaluating a host? Just something that’s unappealing and would cause you to say, “Nope. I’m not interested in this guy.”
Tony: I think just faking It. I think not being honest. You can tell when a guy is throwing something up against the wall to make it stick. Not believing in their opinion. Not feeling convicted in their opinion. That’s a big thing for me. Look, you don’t have to be so outrageous that I’m getting emails every day about how over the top you are, but I want you to have conviction in your thoughts.
I want you to have three things — I think, I feel, I believe. As long as you have those three things all the time you’re going to succeed. So if I don’t hear that out of a guy, that’s the biggest turn off of a host. If you’re just coming on the radio and reading the newspaper, I can do that every day. The guy listening can do that every day. He’s got his cell phone and can read scores in the palm of his hand. Engage a guy. If you can’t entertain, challenge, and engage a listener, you have no spot on my radio station.
Noe: What do you think is the most common mistake that hosts make?
Tony: I think the biggest mistake some make is not formatting a show. I think winging it is a huge mistake. If you do not format your show — and I’m not saying you have to format it like the best national host out there or the best local host in a market, but if you have no flow or plan for where you’re going, you are dying on a vine. The listener can tell, and the PD can definitely tell. And honestly the producer can tell. It may be easy to turn it on if you’ve done it for a while and start talking, but when you’re winging it, you’re not doing three things you should be doing, and that’s engaging, entertaining, and challenging.
I hear guys come on the air sometimes in different markets saying, “Hey, the Cavs and the Celtics played last night, let’s recap the game.” Okay, well what do you want to recap? What points do you want to hit on? Which way do you want to take the audience? How are you going to challenge them to think a different way? How are you going to incorporate sound?
You have to have a plan. You have to have a flow to what you’re doing. You can’t just, every time you turn on the mic in each segment, talk about something different. You have to have an educated way to do that hour and you don’t do that by winging it.
Noe: You’re a very enthusiastic guy. Do you find that you tune a host out if they don’t have energy or passion?
Tony: As energetic as I sound right now, when you’re too over the top and too high-strung the listener can tune you out. I don’t want my guys to be like me. I’m on a different level. Not to say that they can’t be like that every once in awhile, but I want my guys to be who they are. You know when a guy’s got energy. You also know when a guy is tired and just isn’t bringing it.
I don’t find that to be a tune out. I find that to be actually engaging if the guy is like that every day. I find it to be real. I don’t like the approach of the Stephen A. Smith’s of the world where it’s just in your face, yelling and screaming at you every day. You don’t have to talk louder or yell at me to get your point across. You can do that in a nice, calm manner. I don’t need you to yell at me and talk louder to get your point across. It’s the same point you’re going to bring to me if you do it the other way around.
Noe: Do you think it’s tougher to bring the energy out of a host that doesn’t have it, or to try to lower the caffeine level of a guy that is high-strung?
Tony: That’s a great question, because I’ve had examples of that. Mac in the morning, Chris McClain my morning show host, he is high energy, wake you up in the morning, caffeine rush every hour. I think it’s a lot easier to tone a guy down than try and drag energy out of him. A guy either has energy or he doesn’t. That’s just the way it is. Telling a guy to amp it up sounds fake because when they do amp it up it doesn’t sound real.
Having a guy tone it down is much easier in my opinion. I do that a lot with Chris McClain. I’ll get in around 7:30 in the morning and be like, “Hey, bro. You’re screaming at me today. While I love that you’re waking people up, let’s just tone it down a bit. Keep it on a level where everybody driving around is not going to tune you out because you’re yelling at them.”
Noe: The NFL just passed a new policy regarding the national anthem. What are your desires as a PD when it comes to your staff talking about topics that might transition from sports and bleed into politics?
Tony: My philosophy is I want you to talk about it, but I also want you to be educated. I want you to know your audience. By know your audience I mean, know how far you can go. I want you to give your opinion. I want you to give your take. I want to keep politics out of it, but if it’s a political issue I want you to be educated on the political part of the issue.
I had this example come up last Wednesday. I had Stan Norfleet filling in for Chris Kroeger while he was gone for a little bit. Stan works out of Atlanta, and does some work here for us too. He’s a very educated black man. A former high school and college football player who’s educated on the subject. He could’ve gone one of two ways. He could have gone so over the top because of race that I would have looked in there every segment and said, “Bro, what are you doing? Cut your mic off.” He went the opposite way. He educated people on what the rule change was, how it’s going to affect the NFL, and gave his take on it while not being political or one sided. He also listened to everybody that called in, and engaged them in conversation.
One of the things that we are not good at as talk show hosts — listening. I think listeners are the same way. I think listeners have a hard time hearing what hosts say sometimes. They just want to hear things a certain way. But if you are educated on the topic, you can have a thought-provoking conversation, and I will never turn your mic off. Ever. It’s the one thing that you’ve just got to be okay with — pushing the envelope. But push the envelope in an educated way.
Noe: You hear all of the talk about athletes sticking to sports. If you take that concept and apply it to sports radio, I don’t think that you can have that approach in this day and age. These are the main topics that people talk about. How you can constantly avoid all of them?
Tony: You can’t. The stick-to-sports guy is one guy that gets on my nerves all the time. Those guys call every day. They text you. They tweet you, “Stick to sports.” Well guess what? It is not entertaining. It is not engaging. It is not challenging to talk about a box score. What you’re going to do on sports radio is talk about a game in a way that you can find an angle, reasons why a team lost, reasons why a team won, and in this political time in sports especially, you can do that. You can get into a debate because there’s so much out there to educate yourself on in the debate to where it is thought-provoking, can’t-turn-the-radio-off sports radio. That’s what I love. The listener wants that. As long as you know your audience, you will succeed at that every day.
Now there are times where it becomes so racially stressed that you have to cut the conversation off and change gears. I think as a host if you’re good enough, you’ll know when that is. That moment will hit you during a four-hour talk show to where you go, “Alright, enough’s enough. We’ve gone too far. We’ve got to rein it in.”
But I love thought-provoking radio. It’s what we’re in the business for. If I wanted rip-and-read radio, I’d watch SportsCenter. It’s rip-and-read TV. You get a score. You get the highlights. You break the game down a little bit. Then you move on to the next game. If I wanted that, I’d listen to music during the day and watch SportsCenter in the morning.
I want my guys to challenge and engage. That’s the fun part about sports radio. When you can turn on a radio and my host makes you late for a meeting because of what they’re talking about, that’s awesome. It’s why we do this job.
Noe: I was thinking about the interviews that I’ve been on throughout the years. They always ask where you see yourself in five to 10 years. I never know what to say. I just want to do a good job, man. Do you have a vision of where you want to be?
Tony: Yeah, man. I love this town. I love this market. I’ve always thought if I can make this radio station a top-five performer every book, I’m doing my job. That’s my goal, to make WFNZ a top-three, top-five player in sports radio. Honestly, I love Charlotte. Not to say I wouldn’t go anywhere else to do sports radio, but I’ve grown so in love with this market and the sports landscape of this market and this brand. It’s a heritage brand. 25-years-old overall, and 20 years old in this current live-and-local format 6a to 7p.
When I took over for DJ Stout, the passion I have for Charlotte and for FNZ is just tremendous. While maybe I’d love one day to go back to Chicago or be in a top-five market again, I really love Charlotte. If I can stay here for my last 20 years in this business, I’d have no problem with that. I love this station. I love this community. I love our local sports. This is only a 22-year-old sports market. The Hornets and the Panthers are not that old. So we are growing on a daily basis.
Who knows what other professional teams might come here in the future. I think it’s the best time to be in this market and working for Entercom. I see myself in 10 years being right here. If not, Boston, Chicago, New York is where I’d want to be if I didn’t remain in Charlotte, but I want to be here. I don’t want to go anywhere else.
Noe: I just want your unbiased opinion on this. It’s going to be another 100+ years before the Cubs win a World Series again, right?
Tony: (laughs) No, it’s not going to be another 100+ years. You know what? I’ve thought about this a lot Brian. My brother Joe’s a die-hard. He’ll love that I’m mentioning him in here. The guys that you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation are passionate Cub fans, but my brother is one of them rare cats that lives and breathes every pitch from April 1st to October. If the Cubs are not 20 games over .500 every month, he freaks out.
I believe the Cubs will win another World Series in the next five years. It might even be this year. They are notorious for starting slow, but they have too many talented young guys, and too much of a star-powered young core to not win another World Series. I believe this team as currently constructed will contend for the World Series and win it this year, especially if they add a piece or two.
I’m proud to be a Cub fan right now, but I’m a lifelong supporter of my team. I think the best part about what happened in 2016 was hearing my dad cry on the phone. My dad, God bless him 70 years old, he went to games back in the 70’s when nobody went to Wrigley Field. When Wrigleyville was the worst part of Chicago outside of this little baseball stadium built in a neighborhood. So he suffered through every losing season more than my brother and I did. And to hear him cry over the phone in happiness, Man, I teared up. To call my dad from a sports bar here in Charlotte to a sports bar down in Tampa where he lives, and hear another grown-ass man cry about a Cub World Series, that was the best moment in my life. I’ll experience that once again with my father. I guarantee it.
Noe: That’s cool, man. Well, I think it’ll happen sometime between now and the next one hundred years, sadly. Hopefully, not this year. I’m not ready for this year. I need at least a good 15-year window in between.
Tony: I tell my brother all the time, and all of the Cub fans that call in, tweet or email me down here — you can’t win it every year. But if we’re in contention every year to make the playoffs and to go to the World Series, I am completely happy with that. Especially after all of those years of losing.